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Flight Attendants Are Finally Being Recognized For Keeping Us Safe

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 6/17/2020 Jessica Puckett
a person standing next to a plane © Getty

As airlines cut services and add new safety regulations to stem the spread of COVID-19 while in flight, passengers are starting to adapt. But in addition to compulsory face masks on board and middle seats being left open, another shift is happening, too. More and more passengers are acknowledging the safety credentials of flight attendants—a phenomenon that is no small feat given the position’s sexist origins.

“Our primary responsibility has always been and will always be safety,” says Brenda Orelus, founder of aviation social club startup Krew Konnect and an active flight attendant. “I think the shift is a welcome shift, and I hate that it took something as extreme as a global pandemic to have people start looking at us as what we’ve always been.”

Both present and former cabin crew members agree. “From the start, the role has been at its core one of safety, and that importance has now come back,” says aviation expert Mike Boyd, who formerly supervised the flight attendant department for a small airline and filled in as cabin crew himself from time to time. “The entire focus in the back of the mind of professional flight attendants is always anticipating what to do in the event of an emergency. Today’s flight attendants at U.S. airlines can shift to preparing a cabin for a crash landing literally in a heartbeat.” In fact, some governments have even recognized the health and safety credentials of flight attendants. The U.K. and Sweden, for example, have asked cabin crew to become frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.

These safety skill sets are not always visible to the average flier. But with health regulations top of mind for anyone boarding a plane amid the coronavirus outbreak, passengers are looking to flight attendants to guide them through the new protocols.

Among flight attendants' new responsibilities is ensuring passengers have the proper protective gear and sanitizing equipment, and to maintain social distancing in the cabin, including new boarding protocols and leaving extra space between fliers at all points during the flight. One carrier, Turkish Airlines, has even implemented a new "hygiene expert" team of cabin crew members who will oversee these new measures. "Working as a health inspector, Hygiene Experts will solely focus on the enforcement of all on-board hygiene and social distancing measures for the healthy travel of passengers," the airline said in a release.

a group of people standing around a plane: A team of Turkish Airlines hygiene experts. © Courtesy Turkish Airlines A team of Turkish Airlines hygiene experts.

But safety has long been a concern on board planes post-9/11. So why is it only now, during a global health crisis, that some passengers have begun to take flight attendants more seriously?

“It is definitely sexism,” Orelus says. “Aviation overall has made great strides, but if you look to how flight attendants overall are treated or pre-COVID how we were perceived, we were [seen as] just like glorified waitresses, like air waitresses. That’s pretty much what people saw us as.”

That mindset, though also prevalent at the dawn of mainstream flying in 1960s, has been reinforced in recent years by ever-more elaborate, multi-course meals and craft cocktails offered in first and business class—all served by flight attendants.

“Airlines want to be competitive and offer luxurious service, so in addition to our safety duties we learn how to do service. Depending on if you’re first-class or business-class or main-class flight attendant you learn to do five-star, restaurant-style service,” Orelus says. But sometimes those opulent service standards can have a negative effect for cabin crew. “We go through this entire [safety] program, this training, and we have to maintain an A-average; federal aviation standards require an A-average. So I get my certification, become a flight attendant, and become certified by the FAA to fly commercial aircraft,” she says. All that “to have somebody fling their coat in your face and say Just be quiet and pour my Coke.”

Those aspects of the job, however, are largely on hold due to the pandemic.

To reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, most of the lavish meals served in international business-class are now pre-boxed and served grab-and-go style. Amenities like hot towels distributed by crew were one of the first things to go by the wayside when COVID-19 began to proliferate around the globe. Most U.S. airlines have significantly reduced or eliminated food and beverage service on domestic flights. And restrictive policies on alcohol consumption—including those first-class cocktails—are temporarily in place on most airlines. “Even us choosing to suspend services on the flight is to adhere to the 6-feet [guidelines] and be as socially distanced as possible on an aircraft,” Orelus says.

It’s certainly not the first time that flight attendants have made the push to be taken seriously. Those in the role have long tried to separate themselves from its sexist history, starting with the push to change the job title from "stewardess" to flight attendant. “The very nadir was found in the 1960s and early 1970s, trying to make the role one of fashion that airlines competed on,” Boyd says. National Airlines gave their aircraft women's names and used advertising taglines such as Hi. I’m Bunny. Fly me! It was commonplace for hot pants to be part of a flight attendants' uniform, and some airlines went even more risqué, Boyd says. "Braniff International had uniforms called the ‘air strip,’ where the flight attendants came on with space bubbles on their heads, and slinky jackets and outerwear they would slip out of as they boarded the flight.”

During that so-called “golden” era, flight attendants were also subject to strict age and appearance regulations, like the fact they had to be unmarried women, were subjected to height and weight limits, and were forced to retire before their mid-30s.

“That nonsense is over,” Boyd says. “And with the new systems in place due to the [pandemic], the role is now more clearly perceived by the customers as safety.”

More recently, appearance standards haven’t been as blatantly objectifying, but sexist notions have lingered in some airlines’ grooming and uniform standards for their women cabin crew. Emirates is still famous for its rigorous hair and makeup standards—featuring a signature red lip, which new cabin crew perfect in special make-up training sessions at the airline's aviation college in Dubai. Delta still requires women to wear at least a half-inch heel when walking through the airport (they can change into flats on board). Qatar Airways' CEO bragged in 2017 that "the average age of my cabin crew is only 26 years," not like the "grandmothers at American carriers.” In 2016, women cabin crew at British Airways won a two-year fight to be allowed the option to wear trousers instead of skirts. And just last year, it was headline news when Virgin Atlantic announced it was ending its makeup requirement for women flight attendants.

At least temporarily during the pandemic, some of these stringent beauty standards are being overridden by head-to-toe protective gear donned by flight attendants on some carriers, like Qatar and Emirates. It remains to be seen, however, if that cultural shift will spur lasting change for more relaxed appearance policies.

a group of people in a car: Emirates flight attendants in personal protective gear. © Courtesy Emirates Emirates flight attendants in personal protective gear.

For her part, Orelus is skeptical that the pandemic will once and for all end the deep-rooted misogyny surrounding flight attendants. “I think maybe for the next two years we’ll be respected and then it will go back to normal,” she says. “The reason why I say that is, if 9/11 didn’t change peoples’ perception of flight attendants, I really don’t know what will.”

Some are more optimistic about the longevity of passengers’ more respectful view of cabin crew. “As this pandemic goes away, some of the sterility of the on-board experience will go too, but the image of safety and professionalism will remain enhanced,” Boyd says.

After the pandemic, Orelus hopes that some passengers will be more respectful of the safety aspects of the role. “We are—and it should be shouted from the mountaintop—we are safety professionals. And [passengers] should give us the same respect that they give to doctors, and to firefighters and to police officers because we are interacting with just as many people,” she says. “If we were to walk away, if every airline employee said No I’m not going into work, the world stops.”

We're reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here.


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